Iraq revokes security contractor licence after shootout

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BAGHDAD, Sep 17 (Reuters) Iraq announced today it had withdrawn the licence of a US security firm and would prosecute employees it said were involved in a Baghdad shooting in which 11 people were killed.

An Interior Ministry spokesman said guards working for Blackwater, one of the biggest foreign security contractors in Iraq, opened fire after mortar rounds landed near their convoy in west Baghdad's Mansour district yesterday.

''By chance the company was passing by. They opened fire randomly at citizens,'' Brigadier-General Abdul-Karim Khalaf said. Eleven people were killed, including one policeman, and 13 people were wounded, he said.

''We have withdrawn its licence,'' Khalaf said, adding that the ministry was investigating the incident and would ''deliver those who committed this act to the court''.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and apologised over the shooting and they agreed to run a ''fair and transparent investigation'', Maliki's office said.

''She has expressed her personal apologies and the apologies of the government of the United States. She confirmed that the United Sates will take immediate actions to prevent such actions from happening again,'' a statement from Maliki's office said.

It was not clear whether the Iraqi government would still proceed with its decision to withdraw Blackwater's license.

A US embassy spokesman said the shooting took place after a car bomb exploded when US diplomats were nearby.

''The car bomb was in proximity to a place where State Department personnel were meeting. That is why Blackwater responded to the incident,'' spokesman Johann Schmonsees said.

The embassy said it was cooperating with the Iraqi government but declined to confirm that Blackwater's licence had been revoked.

There was no immediate response from Blackwater, which employs hundreds of foreign contractors in Iraq and is responsible for US embassy security.

Blackwater's distinctive small black helicopters hover in the skies above Baghdad and its armed vehicles shadow convoys of senior officials through the city's streets.

Four Blackwater employees were killed in Falluja in 2004.

Insurgents then burned their bodies and hung the charred remains from a bridge -- prompting an all-out US military assault on the Iraqi city.

IRAQI CONDEMNATION Maliki condemned yesterday's shooting and vowed to punish the perpetrators and their employers.

''We will work to punish and halt the work of the security company which conducted this criminal act,'' state television quoted him as saying.

The US embassy said it was seeking clarification on the legal status of security contractors and whether Blackwater employees could be prosecuted in Iraq.

Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani said foreign contractors ''must respect Iraqi laws and the right of Iraqis to independence on their land''.

''These cases have happened more than once and we can't keep silent in the face of them,'' he told Arabiya television.

Tens of thousands of private security contractors, many of them American and European, have worked in Iraq since the US-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003. Many Iraqis believe they operate outside the law with little accountability either to the Iraqi government or US military forces.

Khalaf did not say how many contractors were involved in the shooting. He said the investigating committee had gone to the scene and spoken to witnesses, and would also visit the company's compound in Baghdad.

REUTERS RC BST0204

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